Openings: Qf&p chapter 19

This is a chapter with a lot of famous passages in it; I’m no historian, but skimming through, I find that I recognise a lot of the stories. Here’s George Fox on top of Pendle Hill, seeing the sea and the people to be gathered. Here’s James Naylor called away from his plough. Here’s Thomas Ellwood pretending to be hunting when he’s actually gone to meeting. Here’s Mary Dyer, executed for her religion.

Skimming through also reveals the structure of the chapter. Some of the material is chronological, but there’s no attempt to provide a complete history. (There’s no need to; plenty of other histories of early Quakerism exist.) What is does do is to try and provide some examples of the historical roots of things which are now important to Quakers: universal access to the Inward Light, our structures or ‘gospel order’, and our testimony or witness in the world (here presented as a list of four ‘testimonies’). For me, the benefits of this approach are that it shows us how we are part of a continuity, working along the same lines as our forebears, worried about the same kinds of issues and using the same kinds of methods. Some of them have even more or less worked – English did abandon the you/thou distinction, and affirming rather than swearing is well recognised in law. Bigger goals, like the abandonment of outward warfare, are still works in progress!

Feeling part of the community who have never been afraid to stand out, to be different, to work by our own values and not those of the rest of the world, can be a real aid to taking courage and continuing the work.

There are disadvantages to this presentation too, of course. It could gloss over all sorts of things that I don’t at all have in common with early Friends. Sometimes I’ve felt that this was a real weakness of the book – especially when this book is treated as the only book, as if it’s called ‘All About Quakerism’ or ‘Everything You Need To Know About Quakers’ – but actually there are lots of other resources out there about Quaker history. (Books, films, a free online course running again this May…) We might benefit from being reminded of some of the ways in which early Friends disagreed with us, but we also gain a lot from the sense of community created by focusing, in one chapter at least, on what we do have in common.

That being so, I want to end with someone from this chapter with whom I feel a commonality: Samual Bownas, perhaps one of the first people able to write about the experience of having grown up as a Quaker. Among the very earliest Friends, that experience didn’t exist; then it came to dominate the Society for hundreds of years; but today, it’s almost gone again, with a majority of Quakers arriving in adulthood. Samuel Bownas describes very vividly the need to move from merely being a Quaker because you have always been one, to being a Quaker because you want to be one. My own experience isn’t like his at all – except that in some ways, it is. These experiences doesn’t fit the ‘convincement’ narratives often preferred by Friends, especially if it happens more slowly and less dramatically than it did for Bownas. I sometimes need to be reminded that it is no less valid for that.

A Past Future: chapter 29

You know how old science fiction tells you more about the time in which it was made than the future? I think Qf&p chapter 29, ‘Leadings’, is a bit like that. It was compiled for 1994, when this Book of Discipline was new.

Some of it stands, of course. Predictions about the future are about people, and people don’t change that much. 29.01 talks about walking with a smile into the dark – just as much of a challenge in any age. The situation in Northern Ireland has improved, but there are plenty of other places in the world where you can talk to the “men of violence” mentioned in 29.08.

On the other hand, a lot has also changed.

Some of the leadings which are seedlings in this chapter have grown and blossomed into flowers. 29.03 and 29.18 talk about what we now call sustainability. We have stuck with the inter-faith dialogue mentioned in 29.14, and this work has borne some fruits.

Some positions are clear and consistent but surrounding society hasn’t changed – at all, or in the direction we’d like. 29.09 talks about the arms trade – the technology has changed, but the trade is still happening and Quakers are still protesting it. 29.10 talks about not paying taxes for war purposes – but when I submitted my most recent tax return, HMRC provided me with a handy and horrifying graph to show that more of my money is spent on the military than the environment. (See Conscience for the ongoing campaign.) 29.12 and 29.13 were both written in 1987 – but the poverty they discuss is still very much part of British life in 2017.

Some issues haven’t been taken up by Quakers in the way the authors of these passages hoped they might be. 29.04 talks about the anti-vivisection movement: as far as I know, Quakers in Britain don’t have any united position on this, and while many would want to reduce animal suffering, many still eat meat, and I think most would accept that some medications are best tested on animals. As far as I can tell as a white person, the problems of assumptions about race and ethnicity identified in 29.15 are just as much of an issue now as ever.

Other issues which have been areas for Quaker discussion or even decision aren’t mentioned here. Questions about sexuality and marriage aren’t in this chapter (although they were, as I understand it, on the radar at Yearly Meeting 1994). Questions about gender diversity, assisted dying and end of life care, drug legalisation, and mental health don’t appear here, but have all been raised by meetings since this was written.

Which bits of this chapter do you relate to, and what feels outdated or absent?

Quality of Spoken Ministry

My previous post on Daffodil Ministry sparked a lot of debate on my Facebook page, and it raised so many questions I thought I’d expand some of my responses here. Many thanks to all who participated in that discussion, with special appreciation for those who had the courage to disagree respectfully.

Should we be judging spoken ministry at all? 

I think we all do – setting aside the question of whether we should or not, everyone makes judgements about what they see and hear. It might be a moral judgement, or an emotional reaction such as liking or disliking, or just ‘I want more/less of that’, but it’s there. Some will then ruthlessly suppress those judgements, others will take them home and moan about them in private, and sometimes I choose to blog about them. I’d have just the same thoughts whether I chose to tell you or not! If I choose not to share them, these judgements can often fester in a way which poisons me against particular people, meetings, situations, etc. Sharing them creates a more honest community in which we know one another better.

And should we? Yes, actually, I think we should. If we are to encourage helpful ministry and address unsuitable ministry, as elders are asked to do in Qf&p 12.12c, we’re going to have to work out which is which.

Reflecting on this, I considered my own experience of giving spoken ministry. Sometimes I am thanked for it, or people comment on the content, and I find that very helpful (although being thanked is sometimes awkward – I’d rather be thanked for being faithful to the leading to speak than for speaking itself or for what I am given to say). I’ve never been told directly that I shouldn’t have said something. I have, though, sometimes given ministry to which nobody referred at all afterwards… and then I go home and wonder what happened. I’m fairly sure they heard me because when I’m not being told off for talking too loudly I’m being thanked for being clear and audible. Did they avoid saying something because I’d outrun my Guide but they didn’t want to be judgemental or critical? In a way, I’d rather be told off sometimes because then I’d know I could trust the meeting to be honest with me.

(I am aware that posting this on a widely read blog might have the effect of producing criticism! And that in the moment I might well find that criticism upsetting. I promise that I’m just thin-skinned and will be fine.)

Shouldn’t we encourage (something which daffodil ministry is taken to have, e.g. appreciation for the natural world, thankfulness)?

Yes – if it really does that. Yes – if it is a real appreciation for the actual world, and not just for a common symbol. (Why daffodils and not dung beetles or Dutch elm disease?) Yes – if it is balanced by other elements. A&Q 10 says “Try to find a spiritual wholeness which encompasses suffering as well as thankfulness and joy.” We don’t have to have all of them in any one piece of spoken ministry, but over a month does your meeting include them all?

How does daffodil ministry relate to other problematic forms of ministry?

In the discussion, ‘media ministry’ (typically Radio 4 ministry and Guardian ministry) were also mentioned, and this led me to reflect on another ministry pattern which bothered me in one of my previous meetings. When there was a terrorist attack in Europe, a Friend would often stand and say how terrible this was and how incomprehensible. That the deaths of tens or hundreds are terrible I agree. That the actions of terrorists are incomprehensible I do not agree – this is the line given by journalists and politicians who don’t want us to understand, but to accept it at face value is to deny that there is that of God in everyone. One of the problems I identified with daffodil ministry was its shallowness. Sometimes we need to be reminded of things, or the obvious needs to be stated, but this is most effective if done in an unpredictable way. Observations about the seasons, and repetitions of news items, are neither deep nor surprising and that increases the chances that they won’t be helpful.

What if the way you talk about this stops someone giving ministry?

My intention is not to hold anyone back from following the leadings they are given – and if they are following their leadings faithfully, they’ll say what they have to say whether I like it or not! If people are not following their leadings (and we all do it sometimes, for all sorts of reasons) we have a bigger problem than daffodil ministry.

In practice, I think we all make mistakes. I have held back from giving ministry – I spoke last week, my mother already spoke, it’s nearly the end, that’s too personal – and regretted it afterwards. I have also spoken and regretted it later. I don’t think that discussing ministry openly and seeing that there is a variety of opinion is more likely to prevent helpful ministry than to prevent unsuitable ministry, or more likely to encourage unsuitable ministry than to encourage helpful ministry, so over all, I predict that any effects balance each other out. Please let me know if you have evidence to the contrary!

Aren’t you taking this all too seriously?

I take my faith seriously. Is there really anything else I should be more serious about?

What’s wrong with ‘daffodil ministry’?

Daffodil ministry, in case you’re not familiar with it, is that ministry people give in response to seasonal events – snowdrops, daffodils, and autumn leaves are especial favourites. Someone at my meeting gave ministry today in which she mentioned daffodils, and mentioned daffodil ministry, saying that it was felt to be ‘lighthearted’. (Her spoken ministry wasn’t lighthearted, or any of the other things I’m about to say that daffodil ministry often is, by the way; it prompted this post but I’m not responding to that specific incident.) I’m not sure that ‘lighthearted’ is the problem with daffodil ministry – I’ve heard, and even given, ministry which was genuinely lighthearted, in the sense of including jokes or evoking laughter in response. So what is the problem with daffodil ministry? Here are my three conjectures.

It’s shallow. Ministry which happens to include mention of daffodils isn’t automatically daffodil ministry and daffodil ministry might not mention daffodils. To me, the key thing which identifies a ‘daffodil ministry’ is that the message is shallow. It might have more words in than this, but the content could be summed up as: “Look at the daffodils, aren’t they lovely?” That’s why you can use other seasonal events in just the same way. “Look at the autumn colours, aren’t they lovely?” I’m happy with this as small talk – although I’d rather not make small talk if it’s all the same to you. In meeting for worship, I’m going to worry that this isn’t real ministry, but just a thought or reflection, especially if it comes over as sentimental or twee.

It’s aimed at children or otherwise meant to be ‘accessible’. I have absolutely no data to back this up, but I have a suspicion that daffodil ministry is given more often during the first fifteen/last ten minutes of meeting for worship when the children are present. I’m sure I heard it in my childhood, when I wouldn’t routinely have heard other spoken ministry in ‘big meeting’. I think it’s good for Quaker children to hear spoken ministry rather than being left to assume that the adults have nothing but silence, but I don’t think it helps anyone to be spoken down to. It does help everyone if messages given as ministry are expressed clearly with not too many long words, but anything which changes the message because of who is in the room runs the risk of changing or diluting what the minister has been given to say. Daffodil ministry given because children can see the flowers is a problem in itself, but it’s also likely to lead to shallow ministry.

It’s predictable. This is partly because the daffodils themselves are predictable, arriving every spring as if on cue – well, actually on nature’s cue. However, predictability in ministry is usually held to be a problem. We suspect that people who speak too predictably are riding their own hobby horses rather than being blown where the Spirit takes them. I’m actually a bit torn about this one, because predictability – regularity, reliability – could also be seen as an important aspect of God’s love, and the daffodils arising regularly can be taken as a good symbol of God’s reliability even when things are difficult. (“Love like the yellow daffodil/is coming through the snow” as the song about Julian of Norwich says.)

What do you think? Do you use the phrase ‘daffodil ministry’ in the way I’ve outlined above? Is such ministry acceptable? Why or why not? Has it ever spoken to you personally in that deep way of ministry you needed to hear?

On connections and not being connected: BYM, Quakers worldwide, chapter 9, and me

Chapter 9 of Quaker faith & practice is called ‘Beyond Britain Yearly Meeting’. I read this chapter through and I thought: I don’t have anything to say about this. I don’t have a personal connection to any of this work. I know people who have been to FWCC events, but I’ve never been to one myself. I know people who know about the work of QCEA, but have only a vague awareness myself. I know people who have visited other Yearly Meetings, but I’ve never done that myself. I know people who are involved in QCCIR, but I’ve never served there myself. I know people who are involved with ecumenical and interfaith work, but my involvements have always been minor and are now well in the past.

I nearly ignored the chapter. I don’t feel connected to it. But I do wonder whether it’s worth staying with this sense of disconnection for a little while, especially in the context of a chapter which is all about how we as Britain Yearly Meeting are connected to bodies and communities beyond ourselves.

When I was grasping for a personal connection, in the thoughts I outlined in the first paragraph of this post, I tried to think of my own actions – but as a second best, I thought of the people I know and the things they do. It isn’t the same, but it does give me a feeling of semi-connection. I might not have done this or that myself, but hearing a first-hand report from someone at least makes me aware of the possibility.

I happen to have that second-hand connection because, within BYM, I’m a generally well-connected Friend. My personal friends and family are involved in some of these things; I’m connected to several local meetings, which increases my chances of meeting someone who serves on any given committee; I attend committee meetings where I meet people who are also involved in these aspects of BYM’s work. I note that I wouldn’t get that from this chapter, which gives generalities and guidelines and gestures at the experiences, but doesn’t contain accounts of personal experiences.

I don’t want to generalise too far from my responses to this chapter. However, I have to imagine that many people feel this way – or even less connected – to much more of the book than I do. For me, this feeling of disconnection from the text was unusual enough to be notable. Ten years ago, before I came into membership, before I attended Yearly Meeting regularly, before I served on Sufferings and before I wrote a PhD about Quakerism and before I got a Quaker job, I think I would have felt like this about much more of it, perhaps even about all of the church government chapters. Could the text do more to make it easy to feel connected with these aspects of the Quaker community? Could we as that community make it easier to ‘come inside’ and discover all this stuff?

Stewardship of our material resources (Qf&p chapter 14)

There’s a lot in chapter 14 which might be worth dwelling on, but reading through it I’ve found two themes I have strong reactions to – and I’m pretty sure I won’t be alone in that. One is the question about money, and how much we should give to support the work of Quaker organisations. The other is about property, and especially about owning meeting houses. I’d like to explore them both a little in this post.

Money and giving

I remember a Yearly Meeting a few years ago when how, why and what we give to the yearly meeting was a key issue. (Footnote about a technical use of capital letters: Yearly Meeting is the event; the yearly meeting is the community.) I think people had done their best to stress that money is not the only thing we give, but I was in a deeply insecure place both emotionally and financially – and physically tired, and spiritually open in a way that big Quaker worship for business meetings can create – and I sat through session after session in floods of tears. I am a failure, I have nothing to give, I should be doing so much more and I can’t.

Only a year or two later, I was much better off, and when I got a letter from the treasurers at my local meeting asking me to consider donating, I was delighted to simply log into my online banking system and send them some money. At that time, I was also serving on Meeting for Sufferings, and was aware of firstly, exactly how much per member the Religious Society of Friends requires to function, and secondly, much work we actually get done for that relatively modest sum. Being able to give, generously within the limits of my income, felt good.

Having money and being able to donate it should never – I hope this can be taken as read, but sometimes it’s as well to check – be a prerequisite for belonging to the Quaker community. However, that requires those who do have money to give at a higher rate than strictly necessary in order to support those who can’t. Like service on a committee, it’s not required, but it is one of the ways in which we can feel bonded to the community. I became even more aware of that when I moved meeting and didn’t get a ‘please consider donating’ letter. I felt minimized and patronised that meeting for many reasons, but that compound it.


Picture of my nearest, and very special, meeting house

Owning property

Reading chapter 14 this month has coincided neatly for me with some opportunities at work to talk about meeting houses and Quaker property. I want to pick out some positions I’ve heard people put forward, and explore how I both relate to them all, and worry about them all. (Insert here: joke about typical philosophers.)

We shouldn’t own meeting houses, they tie us down. A meeting house – especially one which is old, or difficult to rent, or expensive to run – can feel like a burden to meeting. There certainly are cases where the meeting is better off without a property. That said, I haven’t noticed meetings who rent space in which to worship being, for example, powerhouses of outreach work or raising vast sums of money for something else, which people who outline this position sometimes imply will happen.

Our meeting house is special because it’s old, beautiful, or associated with a famous historical Quaker. All of that can be true, but it’s not clear to me that this automatically means we should either hold onto it or keep worshipping in it. For some meetings, a useful building and a happy community coincide with one of these things, and I don’t see anything wrong with enjoying that – but I’d be worried if we were holding onto buildings we didn’t like or couldn’t use well for these sorts of reasons. It needs to be held in creative tension with the previous approach.

Our meeting house becomes special because we worship it, perhaps have done so for a long time. This is the one I struggle with most. I think I do know what people mean here: I have had the experience of entering a meeting house (or a stone circle, or a cathedral, etc.) and feeling the sensation of worshipfulness, specialness, magic. Even when there’s nobody there. Even when it’s fallen out of use. The metaphysics of the claim bothers me, though. Is this a psychological thing? (Does it happen to people who don’t know what this building is for? Is it something I imagine, especially when I project it onto a stone circle?) Is it like the energy-signature theory of ghosts, assuming that a kind of prayerfulness is absorbed into the stonework? (Brickwork? Grass? Plastic?) I worry about whether people think this means it’s better to worship in one place than another – in theory, I think all places should be equally sacred, although of course it’s easier to enter a worshipful frame of mind in some circumstances.

Meeting houses are very valuable, and they need to be looked after well. But because we also need to change them and let them go sometimes, I don’t want to be too attached to the specialness of any particular place. It’s the community, and the way that we are able to meet God together by simply listening, which is really the special thing.

I want to end by noting that chapter 14 also contains one of the passages I refer to most often from the whole book, 14:34. It’s not because I need to know about gravestones, but because this paragraph so economically exemplifies how we move from principle to practice.

Sherlock is Sci-Fi: the problem with The Final Problem

Last Sunday, the BBC broadcast ‘The Final Problem’, the final (at least for now) episode of their long-running and mostly very successful drama series, Sherlock. Lots of fans were very excited about an episode which had been described in its creators as making ‘television history‘. Quite a lot of other fans had already drifted away or watched the pirate copy which was circulated hours before the broadcast. Many fans who did watch were disappointed, and I found two very different positions interesting: some fans wanted more mystery solving, and other fans wanted more character development (read: queer romance). I think both forms of disappointment stem from a disagreement about the genre of the series – and of the Holmes canon as a whole.

You can be forgiven for thinking that Sherlock Holmes exists in a detective genre. He is, after all, a detective. He solves crimes – or sometimes mysteries in which no crime has actually been committed, or sometimes prevents crimes. However, I put it to you that ‘detective’ is actually a secondary genre. Holmes is an ameuteur of crime-solving. His real profession is the scientific method.

Conan Doyle based his character on doctors he knew, who specialised in picking up on apparently minor clues in order to correctly diagnose an illness. He has Holmes extend this scientific process to crime – and more or less created the discipline of forensics in the process. Today, it’s easy to forget that this was science fiction at the time, just as stories about going to the moon are now hard to see as sci-fi. There are places in the stories where we can see it at work, though. A particularly obvious example is The Adventure of the Creeping Man, in which [spoilers! although it was published in 1923] the injection of hormones from monkeys gives the patient some of the characteristics of a monkey. My core argument, however, is not just that some of the cases use sci-fi elements, but that Holmes’s method is fundamentally science fiction.

To see this, consider the way in which Holmes’s universe always seems to contain a very small number of possibilities. Why does this client have ink on her finger? She must be a secretary. Or have just signed a cheque. Or be able to write. Or have touched something in a shop on the way over. Or perhaps it’s a dark blue paint from her artist sister’s palette. But for Holmes, it must always mean one thing. Two possibilities are permissible if one of them can be tested in a suitably dramatic way. Seven would be merely inconvenient – but much more realistic.

How does this help us with understanding The Final Problem?  It has two implications. One is that, however carefully fans have ‘read’ the ‘clues’ in the canon, there are always possibilities which have occurred to the writers but not to them. This explains how some viewers were expecting ‘love conquers all‘ to be love between Sherlock and John – or Sherlock and Molly – rather than familial love (or, as Cumberbatch could equally well be saying in the quote at the bottom of that page, the love of fans for actors which might keep them watching even this episode).

The other, more complex, implication is that we should compare this episode, not with other detective stories, but with sci-fi stories. Imagine that this plot appeared as an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Picard, Riker and Worf arrive on a planet where an alien traps them in a peculiar system of her own devising in order to study their reactions to emotionally testing situations. They are able to escape only when Picard can prove his intellectual kinship with her.

It’s not an actual episode, but enough elements of it have happened on the show that I hope you’ll agree with me that it’s plausible. What would be missing is the actual kinship: on ST:TNG, we’re still working with the scientific method, something learned rather than inherited, however little actual science there is among the many handwaves and McGuffins and narrativiums which have been introduced in order to get us to wherever the plot can happen.

The Final Problem, then, treats the Holmes siblings as aliens. And this is where it makes a mistake – a mistake which fans of Star Wars will recognise as the midi-chlorian problem. Early on in the episode, when John Watson first hears details about the third Holmes child, he asks whether she also has “the deduction thing”. The Holmes siblings have it. Others don’t. It might as well be a superpower produced by a mutation of the X gene for all the explanation of it we are given, and this runs completely counter to the kind of sci-fic which Conan Doyle was originally writing.

(I think it would be fine for Dr Who, by the way, for those who are tracking Steven Moffat’s whole portfolio.)

Conan Doyle’s Holmes uses a scientific method – something which Holmes invented, but which can be learned, and which he can teach in small ways to Watson. He is helped by elements in his personality which Conan Doyle assumes are inherent, such as an excellent memory and keen senses, but the method of deduction is just that, a method. In stories about his very early cases, he is sometimes shown to be still learning himself. His older brother also excels at it, but because other people can also learn parts of it, we are left to assume that they honed it together. This isn’t absent from the BBC Sherlock – indeed, the Mind Palace which appeared extensively in the third series is a very good modern reproduction of the core principle: taking a real method and extending it to sci-fi proportions.

Euros is the opposite of this, though. With the three Holmes siblings together, and no evidence in all the discussion of their childhoods that they were taught or invented the method of deduction, ‘being very clever’ is treated as an inborn trait. To return to the comparison with Star Wars: in the Original Trilogy, we thought that being a Jedi was something you learned, because we saw Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda teaching it to Luke Skywalker. In The Phantom Menace, we were disappointed to be told that being a Jedi was something you could detect on a blood test.

The form of sci-fi to which Sherlock Holmes fundamentally belongs entices us in with the idea that humans could be better if we tried harder, or had the right education, or thought about things differently. It makes us want to use the scientific method – even if it’s only to analyse TV shows. The Final Problem lets us down when it treats the Holmes siblings as aliens and not as scientists, because it says that our genetic backgrounds matters more to our abilities than the lives we lead and the decisions we make. And it fails to live up to the promise of an important line Sherlock utters in an earlier episode in the series, The Abominable Bride: “Oh, Watson. No one made me. I made me.”